You could hardly call what LSU and Clemson have shared on the football field a rivalry.
The schools have met all of two times, with LSU winning 7-0 in the 1959 Sugar Bowl and 10-7 in the 1996 Peach Bowl.
A rivalry? That’s LSU/Alabama or Clemson/South Carolina. What exists between the LSU Tigers and Clemson Tigers is more of a hazy glimpse of an image in a distant mirror.
There is one point of contention, though, between LSU and Clemson, who meet New Year’s Eve in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta: Which school has the real Death Valley?
LSU’s Tiger Stadium and Clemson’s Memorial Stadium have been labeled Death Valley by their fans, nicknames that for both embody what LSU coach Les Miles said of Tiger Stadium after his team beat South Carolina in October: “That was Death Valley. That was the place where opponents’ dreams come to die.”
But which nickname was in place first?
Tiger Stadium is older, the first game played there Nov. 25, 1924, when Tulane blanked LSU 13-0. Memorial Stadium didn’t open until Sept. 19, 1942, when Clemson beat Presbyterian 32-13.
Clemson’s stadium was built against the advice of former coach Jess Neely, who on his way out the door to become coach at Rice advised school’s administration to dismiss the notion of building a big stadium.
“Put about 10,000 seats behind the YMCA,” he said. “That’s all you’ll ever need.”
Today, Clemson’s Death Valley seats 81,500. Tiger Stadium seats 92,542.
Presbyterian, a small college from Clinton, S.C., factors most prominently in the Death Valley moniker.
In 1943, little Presbyterian went to Clemson and sprang a 13-12 upset on a Tigers team depleted by players who had entered the service for World War II. The next year, Clemson crushed the Blue Hose 34-0.
As his team practiced for the 1945 opener, a game Clemson would win 76-0, Presbyterian coach Lonnie McMillian remarked to his players that they had to get ready to go back to “Death Valley” to play Clemson.
“Then the media kind of picked up on it and (Clemson coach) Frank Howard picked up on it and it snowballed,” said Sam Blackman, longtime senior associate sports information director at Clemson.
According to Clemson, the stadium has been officially referred to as Death Valley since 1948.
But what prompted McMillian to call Clemson’s stadium Death Valley in the first place? Blackman said the story goes that McMillian visited Death Valley in California in 1932 on his way to the Summer Olympics that year in Los Angeles.
Callie Gault, a Presbyterian player in the mid-1940s and later the school’s coach, said McMillian remarked that playing a day game at Clemson early in the season was so hot that it was like playing in Death Valley.
“(Gault) said you haven’t felt hot until you’ve played in (Clemson’s) stadium in September,” Blackman said, adding that Memorial Stadium is built in a natural valley that tends to hold heat, especially in early-season games.
Oppressive early-season heat was a big reason LSU began playing night games in Tiger Stadium in 1931, though how LSU’s home address came to be known as Death Valley is far less documented.
Former LSU sports information director Bud Johnson said he first remembers Tiger Stadium being referred to as Death Valley after LSU played Clemson for the first time.
“No one called it Death Valley here until after we played in the Sugar Bowl,” said Johnson, who is now director of LSU’s Jack and Priscilla Andonie sports museum.
There is ample anecdotal evidence that Tiger Stadium once was referred to as Deaf Valley and that somehow “Deaf” changed to “Death” over the years, probably in the 1980s or ’90s.
The prime example of the Deaf Valley nickname was a gas station that once occupied the southwest corner of Perkins Road and State Street, a block north of the LSU campus. The gas station, called Deaf Valley Shell, was in operation until 1974.
Having a nickname borrowed from Clemson never sat particularly well with LSU’s resident sports historian.
“I always felt LSU had enough originality about it that we didn’t have to borrow anything from anybody,” Johnson said.
The question remains, though: Which Death Valley is the real Death Valley? LSU’s version definitely has one prominent supporter.
“Most of our players have never been to (LSU’s) Death Valley,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said before his team’s trip to Baton Rouge in October. “That is the Death Valley, isn’t it? Is there another one around?”
Spurrier’s remark, fully intended to get under the skin of Clemson supporters, certainly found its mark with coach Dabo Swinney.
“I heard about that,” he said. “For the record, the original Death Valley is right here. In case anybody has any doubts, it’s right here.”
Original, perhaps, but more famous?
That likely will remain a subject of contentious debate.
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